Young and feisty girls who choose to wear the veil

1st December 2006 at 00:00
How do Muslim sixth formers view the controversy that has put them - and their choice of clothing - in the spotlight? Surprisingly liberally, actually

Aishah Azmi learnt this week that she has been sacked from her job as a language teaching assistant. It was the 24-year-old's insistence that she would not remove her veil in the classroom that made her a cause cel bre and prompted national debate, from the Prime Minister to the punter in the pub.

Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Mrs Azmi's home town, said: "I'm obviously disappointed that a compromise could not be reached.

But while I would absolutely defend her right to wear the veil in society, it's clear that her wearing the veil in a classroom inhibits her ability to support children."

Last month Tony Blair said the veil row was part of a necessary debate about the way the Muslim community integrates into British society. He said the veil was a "mark of separation" which makes people feel uncomfortable.

But Charlie Taylor, deputy head of Turton high school arts and media college, Bolton, does not share the politicians' concerns.

"I should know about face covering," he laughs from behind a generous beard. "Communication is more than just facial expression; mostly you know whether pupils are taking something in from what they say and how they say it. We don't see the veil as an issue here."

For the past two or three years, a small but growing number of Turton's female Muslim sixth formers have chosen to wear the niqab - which covers the face - and staff have chosen to respect their choice. These students are not retiring violets. Indeed, they are among the feistiest students in the sixth form. Like many young women who have taken up the niqab in the UK, they wear it proudly, an outward sign, they say, of their deep faith, and a statement of their cultural identity.

Turton, in the largely white, northern suburbs of Bolton, close to the Pennine foothills, is the last place one would expect to find students wearing the niqab, given that most schools in northern towns, even those with a largely Muslim intake, allow students to wear the hijab (the headscarf), but stop short of the veil.

But Turton's sixth form of 500 draws from diverse cultures, and John Porteous, the head, is proud of the mix: "I think, increasingly, Asian heritage students and particularly Muslim girls are attracted to the sixth form because they find it a sympathetic place to be."

All of Turton's upper sixth Muslim girls - whether veiled, headscarf wearers, or bare-headed - who agreed to speak to The TES regard themselves as fully integrated into British society. They also respect each other's choice of dress, believing it expresses their differing piety.

They were all taking A-levels and plan to study for careers ranging from optometry to politics. Their dress, they say, is about their faith and cultural identity, not about wanting to be separate.

Mariyam Malik, 17, who has been wearing the veil only since entering the sixth form, did so against the wishes of her parents, who feared it would be a barrier to her getting on at college. She says that has not been the case: "I cannot see the difference between me wearing the veil and others who don't. A lot of my teachers are male, but we get on so well. They know my personality. I can express myself just like any other person. A lot of my friends communicate through chat lines. They don't see each other, but don't have any difficulty. What's the difference?"

Nasira Dalal, 17, who is studying psychology, IT and history A-levels with a view to reading history at Manchester university, has been wearing the veil since Year 7. She is adamant that it does not impede communication and that girls cannot hide their feelings behind it. She joked that chewing gum was about the only thing she might get away with.

The girls are willing to take off their veils for all-girl PE lessons and say they would have no problem with removing it for safety or legal reasons.

Interestingly, they also believe that Mrs Azmi was in the wrong. Language teaching, they all agree, requires the face to be seen, and as she was teaching pre-pubescent children, they don't believe there was a problem with her going unveiled.

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